'Hollywood's Architect'

John Hill
13. February 2020
Recreation of Williams' upside-down drawing technique the black architect would use when sitting across from his white clients. (Photo: Screenshot from Hollywood's Architect)

Hollywood's Architect, a new documentary on Paul Revere Williams, celebrates the life and work of the African American "Architect to the Stars" who was the posthumous recipient of the AIA Gold Medal in 2017.

As revealed in Hollywood's Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story, being a black architect in the United States in the first half of the 20th century was far from easy. Facing what he called "the blank wall of discouragement," his high school teachers told him he wouldn't be an architect because white people would not hire a black architect. While he ignored this advice and would become a sought-after architect in Southern California, he had to develop techniques to overcome the racism of the time. Most impressively, as documented in the documentary, he learned to draw upside down so that he would be seen sitting across from his white clients rather than next to them.

Williams gained fame for designing the houses of celebrities in Hollywood, but his versatility as an architect extended to other buildings types, such as churches, schools, hotels, and government buildings. Most famous are the Theme Building at LAX Airport and the Beverly Hills Hotel, whose logo is Williams' own handwriting. But while working on the design of the hotel's new Crescent Wing, Williams was not allowed to stay at the hotel or even eat by the pool — yet another sign of the institutional racism at the time.

Hollywood's Architect also delves into Williams' legacy since his death in 1980 at the age of 85. The documentary discusses the preservation and restoration of some of his buildings but also the destruction of much of his office records in 1992, when the bank where they were kept became a casualty of the Los Angeles riots. Thankfully, his granddaughter, Karen Hudson, had removed drawings from the bank when working on a book about her grandfather — another means of preserving the legacy of "Hollywood's architect."

Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Hollywood's Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story premiered on PBS SoCal during Black History Month on February 6. It is now available to stream online.

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